Social Housing Amendment Bill [B29 – 2007]

Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre (TLAC) is a multi-disciplinary centre that seeks to promote the rights of women to live lives free of violence through research, advocacy, litigation and the provision of free legal services.

TLAC has offices in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, and Acornhoek, Mpumalanga.


TLAC welcomes this bill and is pleased to note the recognition in the bill of the pressing need to provide affordable housing to poor people.  The vast majority of TLAC’s clients are poor women and as such, they frequently cannot afford to rent or own housing that meets their constitutional rights to dignity, privacy and equality.

TLAC also notes that the bill explicitly prioritises the housing needs of, inter alia, women and vulnerable groups.  Although TLAC welcomes this provision, it is concerned that the bill fails to mention the specific housing needs of women in abusive relationships.  In our view, these women form part of a particularly vulnerable group and require special attention if their housing needs are to be met.

This submission therefore focuses on the particular needs of women in abusive relationships and their housing needs.

Women and housing

Housing is not a “women’s issue” as it affects both men and women. There is however a need to recognise that women are more vulnerable than men to homelessness and insecure tenure and their needs require specific attention.

There are both social and economic reasons why there is a need for a specific focus on women in housing. The Habitant Agenda state that “The empowerment of women and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, whether rural or urban, are fundamental to sustainable human settlements development[1]”. Socially, gender division of labour has defined the interaction of both men and women with housing. The domestic sphere which is in turn closely linked to housing, is associated with women whereas the public is associated with men. Women tend to spend more time in the house as compared to men. For some women their housing is their source of identification and definition. It defines their interaction with society and the social networks that they make, which in turn become quite vital to women both psychologically and economically.

In addition,
majority of those who bare the brunt of deprivation are women and children.  Women’s contribution to housing is often limited to value added services whereas ownership and title vest with men (mostly in domestic partnership such as marriage and cohabitation). Women’s access to property and land is usually as secondary owners, they access it through partnerships and relationships and in cases of crisis their rights are often compromised. There are a number of both social and economic situations that render women insecure and at times homeless, deriving from their low socio-economic status and high levels of dependency. Access to housing can therefore be a powerful tool to tackle women’s poverty and strengthen their security of tenure.

Domestic violence and housing

Although reliable national statistics on domestic violence are difficult to obtain, and those that do exist are now somewhat dated, research suggests that South African women experience high levels of violence in their intimate relationships. A three province study undertaken in 1997 showed that up to 28% of women had recently experienced physical violence in their intimate relationships.  Research conducted in 2001 amongst women attending ante-natal clinics showed that as many as 55% of women had  ever experienced physical abuse in an intimate relationship. In June 2004, the Medical Research Council estimated that 1349 women were murdered by their intimate partners during 1999, translating into a prevalence rate of 8.8 per 100 000.  This rate indicated that South Africa has the highest rate of intimate femicide for those countries where such research has been done.

Domestic violence not only violates women’s rights to bodily and psychological integrity, dignity and equality, it frequently compromises their rights to housing and shelter.

Section 26(1) of the Bill of Rights states that everyone has the right of access to adequate housing. The 1994 White Paper, A New Housing Policy and Strategy for South Africa, also affirms that housing is a basic human right and states that government “is under a duty to take steps and create conditions which will lead to an effective right to housing for all. It is also under a duty to refrain from taking steps which promote or cause homelessness.”

The content, or entitlements, of housing rights in South Africa have not, as yet, been spelt out in detail. In the absence of this, we have drawn on the entitlements identified in General Comment No 4 of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC). This framework is then applied to the particular circumstances of abused women to show how domestic violence denies women the right to adequate housing.

General Comment No 4 sets out seven different entitlements which constitute adequate housing: legal security of tenure; availability of services, materials and infrastructure; affordable housing; habitable housing; accessible housing; location; and culturally adequate housing. Of these, domestic violence is perhaps most likely to affect women’s legal security of tenure, and the entitlements to affordable, habitable and accessible housing.

Legal security of tenure

Episodes of domestic violence threaten women’s security of tenure in a variety of ways. First, women are periodically or even permanently evicted by their partners. How frequently this occurs is unknown as only a very few studies have explored this question. In one small study (Vetten and Hoosain, 2006)[2], 14 out of the 32 women interviewed had been forced to leave the place in which they were living many times during the relationship. This was either to escape further violence or because they had been told to leave. Research conducted in the rural areas of the Southern Cape also recorded women (and sometimes their children too) being chased out of the home late at night or in cold weather (Artz, 1999)[3]


Second, women are also displaced from their homes, having to move to shelters or other accommodation to escape their abusive partners. In a study undertaken in Die Bos, an informal settlement in the Western Cape, domestic violence accounted for 20% of moves recorded[4]. An extreme example of such displacement is offered by the case of S v Engelbrecht, which involved a woman killing her abusive husband. This particular matter records how Mrs Engelbrecht moved six times in the space of eighteen months to escape her abusive husband.

Third, where women depend on their male partners for access to housing, reporting the abuse may put the couple at risk of being evicted. In the farming context, where men’s accommodation is often dependent on their working for the farmer, men may be dismissed when women report the violence to a supervisor or manager. Both parties will then have to vacate their accommodation. Alternatively, if women report the matter to the police and the man is arrested and unable to work for a period of time, this too may result in the man’s dismissal and consequent eviction from the property[5]

Affordable housing

Patterns of employment and wage-earning in South Africa are such that women generally earn less than men and are also less likely to be in full-time, permanent employment. As a result, women are frequently economically dependent on men and in the absence of alternative, affordable accommodation, effectively trapped with their abusive partners:

I always thought that if I had to leave with this child of mine where would we go? What would my child eat? What would become of us both? We’ll suffer, we’ll starve. This man he is the only one who has the money. He’s the one who could feed us. He’s the one who could pay where we live. (Quoted in Vetten and Hoosain, 2006).

Yet even when women do leave to stay in a shelter, or with family members, they may ultimately return to their abusive partners because they have nowhere else to go when their allotted time in the shelter has lapsed, or overcrowding in family members’ homes becomes unbearable (Mathews and Abrahams, 2001). This is how a police officer expressed his frustration with this absence of alternatives:

In May we had a domestic violence case and the complainant was taken to a shelter. But they can only stay at the shelter for three months. It is four months since we helped the complainant and her case is still not dealt with by the courts. It is not finalized. This woman is out of the shelter and has moved into the home where the respondent is because she has nowhere else to go. (Quoted in Parenzee et al 2001: 84).

Women who cannot afford any form of accommodation are at risk of becoming homeless. The extent of abused women’s homelessness is however, often disguised. While women are more likely to move between family, friends and shelters in their search for accommodation, some do literally end up sleeping on the streets. This too places women at risk of violence. Dladla et al’s interviews (2004) with 28 homeless women living in transitional housing schemes and the various abandoned buildings dotting inner-city Johannesburg, found that some women had entered into relationships specifically to secure accommodation, as well as their personal safety. While some of these women had been moderately and even severely injured by their partners, they nonetheless saw their partners as protecting them from other men in the homeless community. As one participant observed, capturing this perception:

I think they [other men in Drill Hall] do this to us [swear and threaten] because we are older women and do not have the protection of male partners [6]

Habitable housing

Many women are not physically safe in their homes. A 1997 community-based prevalence study conducted in three provinces found that 27% of women in the Eastern Cape, 28% of women in Mpumalanga and 19% of women in the Northern Province had been physically abused in their lifetimes by a current or ex-partner[7]. The same study also investigated the prevalence of emotional and financial abuse experienced by women in the year prior to the study. This was found to have affected 51% of women in the Eastern Cape, 50% in Mpumalanga and 40% in Northern Province (ibid). A study of 1 394 men working for three Cape Town municipalities found that approximately 44% of these men were willing to admit to the researchers that they abused their female partners. At its most extreme, domestic violence also results in women’s deaths. Approximately half of all South African women murdered in 1999 were killed by their intimate partners, translating into a prevalence rate of 8.8 per 100 000 of the female population aged 14 years and older - the highest rate yet reported by research anywhere in the world [8]

In addition, the design of houses and housing settlements also plays an important role in
reducing violence against women and increasing their sense of personal safety. Interviews with women in Gauteng about their experiences of public housing highlighted the need for houses to be designed with two doors instead of one. Women pointed out that it was made more difficult to flee an abusive partner when there was only one door serving as both exit and entrance.

Research on violence against women in public housing estates in the USA suggests that how public housing developments are managed and run is another factor affecting the occurrence of domestic violence[9]. The study conducted amongst homeless women in Johannesburg’s inner-city points to similar conclusions. The women in this study who lived in those homeless and public housing communities characterised by extremes of poverty, social instability, violence and tenure insecurity reported higher levels of domestic violence and abuse than those women living in more settled environments. The two most fragmented communities had also acquired enough of a reputation for violence that, according to the respondents, neither the police nor the emergency medical services were willing to respond to calls for assistance. By contrast, in one of the transitional housing developments, which was a much more stable residence with more security and a structured internal management system in which residence rules were generally enforced, respondents reported overall lower levels of inter-personal violence. These factors, coupled to the suggestion of more economic security amongst the households of the women respondents, could explain the lower reported levels of domestic abuse in this particular residence (Dladla et al 2004: 35).

Accessible housing

Women generally have been subject to discrimination on a variety of grounds including gender, race and socio-economic circumstances (to name but a few), as well as in a range of spheres, including the workplace, political realm and the family. Domestic violence, which causes considerable hardship, both materially and emotionally, may further compound women’s disadvantage – particularly where it contributes to women’s impoverishment. small-scale, exploratory study showed how in some women’s relationships, abusive partners took women’s money and property from them, and also prevented women from seeking or maintaining employment[10]. Those men who refused to uphold their duty of support also effectively created two households under one roof: one occupied by women and their children in which they might be denied adequate shelter, nutrition and health care; and another for the man in which he maintained himself. Such women are placed in the invidious position of having to choose between greater personal safety, along with homelessness and destitution, or dependence on others; or violent and dangerous personal circumstances - but with some degree of economic and material support for themselves and their children. Because this group of women is effectively both destitute and homeless when displaced or forced from their homes by domestic violence, they ought be prioritized in relation to housing and other forms of social and material support.

South Africa’s housing policies do not discriminate against women and are explicit in their rejection of such discrimination. However, there is some suggestion that those tasked with applying policy may take a discriminatory approach towards women’s property rights. The national housing subsidy database identifies many women, along with their male partners, as having benefited from this subsidy. However, those responsible for recording ownership of the house have been known to record it under the name of the male partner alone. Should the relationship come to an end, then such women will have no legal right to the house, as well as being ineligible for any further subsidies[11]


It is clear that domestic violence can frequently disrupt women’s housing and shelter needs.  Although the Domestic Violence Act does contain provisions that seek to protect women in abusive relationships from homelessness, these are not being effectively used and are ineffective in protecting the long term housing needs of women in abusive relationships. The provision of social housing to these women will go a long way to ensuring not only their housing rights, but also protecting them from further violence.

[1] Paragraph 27, Principle 1, Habitat Agenda, 1996

[2] Vetten, L. and Hoosain, R. (2006). Money, money, money: An exploratory study of the economics of abuse. CSVR Gender Programme, Policy Brief No. 04, July 2006.


[3] Artz, L. (2003). Magistrates and the Domestic Violence Act: Issues of Interpretation. Institute of Criminology


[4] Ross, F. (1996). “ “Vat jou goed en trek…” The effects of domestic violence on domesticity in an informal settlement” in Lorraine Glanz and Andrew Spiegel (eds). Violence and Family Life in a Contemporary South Africa: Research and Policy Issues. Pretoria: HSRC Publishers


[5] Parenzee, P. and Smythe, D. (2003). Domestic Violence and Development: Looking at the Farming Context. Institute of Criminology, University of Cape Town: South Africa.


[6] Dladla, J., Hargreaves, S., Greenberg, S. and Vetten, L. (2004). “That Place is kwaMyamandawo”: Fear and Survival Startegies Among Homeless Women Living in Inner-city Johannesburg. Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.


[7] Jewkes, R., Penn-Kekana, L., Levin, J., Ratsaka, M. and Schrieber, M. (1999). “He must give me money, he mustn’t beat me”: Violence against women in three South African Provinces. Pretoria: Medical Research Council.


[8] Mathews, S., Abrahams, N., Martin, LJ., Vetten, L., van der Merwe, L. and Jewkes, R. (2004). “Every six hours a woman is killed by her intimate partner”: A National Study of Female Homicide in South Africa. MRC Policy brief no. 5, June 2004.


[9] Raphael, J. (2001). ‘Public Housing and Domestic Violence’ in Violence Against Women, Volume 7, Number 6


[10] Vetten, L. and Hoosain, R. (2006). Money, money, money: An exploratory study of the economics of abuse. CSVR Gender Programme, Policy Brief No. 04, July 2006.


[11] Charlton, S. (2004). An Overview of the Housing Policy and Debates, Particulalrly in Relation to Women (Or Vulnerable Groupings). Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.